In New York, professional MMA is illegal, so fighters go underground to prove their mettle.
More than 17,000 enthused fight fans packed Mon- treal’s Bell Center for UFC 154 and the return of national hero Georges St-Pierre to the Octagon. The crowd was deafening, the gate and pay-per-view buys were massive, and the fighter payroll and bonuses were lucrative.
Less than 24 hours later, 331 miles away, on the opposite end of the MMA spectrum, an eclectic group of fight fans elbowed their way into a subterranean gym in the Bronx, New York, to witness local he- roes throw down in the Underground Combat League. The combat- ants weren’t fighting for fame, fortune, or even a paycheck, and there were no glamorous ring girls, MMA agents, or television cameras.
“The Underground Combat League is a grassroots organization,” says UCL promoter Peter Storm. “This is Fight Club, but with skilled fighters. This is where guys come to decide if they want to pursue fighting as a career or whether they want to try it once and never come back again. You have to love combatant sports to a certain degree if you are willing to step into a ring and get punched in the face.”
In the early days of the UCL, the fighters were typically brawlers and wannabes with a passion for violence. That’s not the case any more. Today, most participants are mixed martial artists in-training, looking for an outlet to display their unheralded talent.
“You can train with the best people, but until you have that in-ring experience, where you know how it feels to get hit by someone who is actually trying to hurt you and trying to win, you’re not ready for fighting yet,” says 21-year-old Desmond Nelson, who is preparing for his sixth UCL fight of the year.
Because professional MMA is still not sanctioned in the Empire State, the Underground Combat League is really the only game in town, unless local New Yorkers can get on a fight card at one of the few Native American reservations in the state or cross the Hudson River and compete in New Jersey.
Amateurs and future pros from out of state have thrown down in the UCL, but its most distinguished alumni is former UFC Light- weight Champion Frankie Edgar, who fought underground in 2005.
“Fighting in the UCL was definitely an experience I will never for- get,” says Edgar. “It was in a boxing gym on a hot Sunday afternoon in the Bronx. There was no weigh-in, no rounds—just a 15-minute fight with Vale Tudo rules. People were sitting on the ring we were fighting in. Some people came off the streets and got fights. One kid fought in a pair of jean shorts. But, I got some fighting experience and a cool story to tell people.”
UFC 7 was held in Buffalo, New York, in 1995, and despite setting the mark for the largest attendance of any UFC at the time, Governor George Pataki and the State Legislature were not pleased with the spectacle that went down, and they put into motion a law banning professional MMA. That was the last time the UFC held an event in New York.
The Underground Combat League, however, has successfully staged 40 shows throughout the five boroughs of the city since 2003, exploiting a loophole in the law—while professional mixed martial arts is illegal, amateur MMA is just fine.
“Professional MMA—like the UFC or any other pro organization—is banned, but amateur MMA they let go,” says Marc Ratner, UFC vice president of regulatory affairs. “It makes no sense.”
As long as fighters in the UCL remain unpaid, they can continue to throw down in no-name gyms throughout the city.
“The New York State Athletic Commission has been against the UCL from the start,” says Jim Genia, author of Raw Combat, who has been covering the UCL since day one. “But nothing has ever come from it because no one has the legal teeth to actually go after these amateur events. The UCL is that elusive ninja in the night. The UCL is that organization that won’t die. It’s too resilient. It’s been around almost a decade—that’s longer than Affliction or PRIDE. The Athletic Commission hasn’t been able to stop them.”
For a third consecutive year, the NY State Senate passed a bill to legalize MMA in New York, but for the third straight time, the bill never made it to the Assembly floor for a vote. For now, the fighting is taking place inside a courtroom, between Zuffa and State lawyers. While the judicial process slowly grinds out a decision, the UCL will celebrate its 10-year anniversary in February.
It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon in New York. Keeping the mystique and secrecy of the UCL alive, I receive a clandestine text message with the time and location for today’s event, and my cab driver reluctantly finds the gym, located between a Laundromat and a church. It resembles a scene from a movie, however, there’s no fat guy surrounded by bodyguards taking bets in a smoky back room. Actually, there’s no smoking, alcohol, or gambling allowed.
Inside the gym, Peter Storm is preparing for fight night. There’s no elaborate program or fight card, he’s just scribbling on a crum- pled piece of paper, writing down the names of the fighters who will be fighting tonight. Hopefully, he won’t need to pull someone out of the audience to fill a spot.
There’s 45-year-old Dawadah, a nurse at a hospital in Harlem and lead instructor of Dawadah’s Totally Complete Jeet Kune Do, ready to make his UCL debut. Having taught for years, he felt it was necessary to put his money where his mouth is and back up his teachings in the ring.
“This competition is right up our ally,” says Dawadah. “It’s just a matter of carrying over into the ring what we train every day. I’m feeling very confident.”
According to Storm, the Underground Combat League uses Gentleman’s Rules, similar to the ones incorporated at UFC 1 (no biting, eye gouging, groin shots, or fish hooking), and Vale Tudo-anything-goes fights are not out of the norm. The fighters agree to the rules for their specific bouts with a pre-fight handshake. UCL events include a referee and judges, but there are usually no doc- tors or EMTs, and there are no pre-fight medical exams.
An eclectic group of approximately 100 fans, including grandmothers and young kids, have paid 35 dollars to witness six bouts. Most attendees are either friends or family of the fighters participating.
After signing a waiver, the fighters pack into a makeshift locker room no bigger than a closet and prepare for battle. Proving this show is far from the big leagues, Desmond Nelson’s cousin inter- rupts my interview with Storm so he can borrow his cup before he fights. And like he does for most of his shows, promoter Storm is fighting in the evening’s main event.
The fights begin with a bang, as two young mixed martial artist s engage in a stand-up war that ends when one fighter ’s head bounces off the canvas after a finishing right hand lands flush to his chin.
Justin Smith is up next, however, he doesn’t get much ring time, as Daniel Ramos chokes him out in only 21 seconds, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
“I was too busy tr ying to knock him out,” jokes Smith. “That’s what I get.”
Things go better for student Desmond Nelson, who earns a hard-fought victory over William Cavali in a kickboxing match.
“A lot of people say you are just injuring your bodies and stuff, but we’re getting experience too, it’s not like we just come in here and cockfight,” says Nelson. “I’m happy Peter does these events, because he gives young fighters here in New York a chance.”
Then the veteran of the group, Dawadah, puts his Bruce Lee inspired Jeet Kune Do skills to good use, destroying a kid half his age with precision kicks and strikes.
“The gameplan from the beginning was to use my experience and my skill,” says Dawadah. “I’m very pleased because we had a lot of my students here tonight.”
In the evening’s main event, Storm and his opponent Jonathan Rodriguez have agreed to fight with Vale Tudo rules, and it isn’t long until they both unleash brutal headbutts. The sound of skulls crashing together is almost sickening, as I watch the action take place five feet in front of me.
The round ends with Storm just missing a fight-ending heel hook, and then it’s all Rodriguez in the second round, flooring Storm with knees to the body, and then finally grounding-and-pounding his way to a win.
“He just stunned me,” Storm says. “I don’t know if it was a knee or headbutt. I don’t like losing, but I lost. This is my sixth defeat in 22 fights, so it’s time for some self-improvement.”
The fans are almost treated to a bonus fight, as a post-fight me- lee almost erupts between two camps because of bad blood fueled by an interview posted on Facebook. Not even the UCL is immune to Internet trash talk. As the ruckus is quelled, fighters begin to show their respect and shake hands and hug. Storm has pulled off another successful event—something the UFC has not been able to do in New York in almost a decade.